[The Acton Forum] North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions: What can be done to denuclearise the Korean peninsula

Meriel Syhyeon Lee
Bachelor of International Relations, Australian National University
13 April 2015

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been a threat to peace and stability in Northeast Asia. North Korea’s attempt on the nuclear development has been interpreted as its desire for the international recognition as a nuclear weapon state and for the regime survival.[1] Without a doubt, North Korea’s nuclear program is a direct security threat to the United States (U.S.), the Republic of Korea (ROK) and neighbor states in the region, but at the same time, it is also a great threat to the international security. This is firstly because of the potential for a significant increase in North Korea’s WMD exports including nuclear weapons related technology, especially to those who are of nuclear ambition.[2] Secondly, its ripple effect would lead more states to claim the legitimacy of possessing nuclear weapons and therefore would undermine the international regime of the nuclear non-proliferation. [3] In this regard, North Korea’s nuclear weapons development should not only be considered as a regional problem in Northeast Asia. It should also be deemed as a great security challenge facing the international community today.

There have been continued international community’s efforts to denuclearize North Korea. However, its results have always been ineffective and even become worse. In spite of the international efforts, such as the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and the U.S’s negotiation attempt, the third nuclear test was conducted in 2013.[4] Consequently, U.S. has changed its position from so called “strategic patience” to strengthening sanctions toward North Korea and to strengthening its alliances with ROK and Japan.[5] Furthermore, the third nuclear test led the ROK to seriously consider its own nuclear weapons program as the country started to doubt that American extended deterrence would be adequate to secure its national security.[6] As a result, North Korea’s nuclear weapons development has significantly escalated tensions on the Korean peninsula and throughout Northeast Asia.

From North Korea’s perspective, possessing nuclear weapons can be the most effective strategy to ensure its domestic stability and regime security from external threats, and therefore the country is hardly likely to renounce it. There are two evidences to support this contention. First, North Korea’s motive in pursuing nuclear weapons seems largely based on its desire for domestic political stability, whereas other states normally seek nuclear weapons to protect their national security against the threat from outside.[7] Especially since the death of Kim Jung Il, Pyongyang has believed that nuclear weapons would lead its domestic population to be proud of its “strong” regime, despite of the economic hardship.[8] Second, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is the most cost-effective and convincing means of ensuring its national security and regime survival. Indeed, the nuclear weapons program is a cost-effective deterrence means as it is apparently cheaper than conventional weapons.[9] For example, although the ROK spent similar amount on developing conventional weapons compared to North Korea, as estimated 3 US billion since 1992, the deterrent power seems relatively weaker than North Korea.[10] Furthermore, with regard to the international society’s consciousness of nuclear weapons’ destructibility, nuclear program can be the most convincing negotiation strategy.[11] International community, particularly the U.S. and the ROK, have provided substantial economic assistance, in the condition of cutting down the nuclear system.[12] Furthermore, contrary to the collapse of the Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which was also against the U.S., the North Korean regime was able to survive. In this regard, there is no reason for North Korea to renounce its nuclear weapons in an absence of more attractive and convincing incentives than possessing nuclear weapons.

North Korea is the most important country in this nuclear issue as it is the country possessing nuclear weapons related materials and technology as well as the host state of possible nuclear inspection. At the same time, however, North Korea is a less important player in this nuclear issue as the country in a desperate situation that has no choice but to pursue nuclear weapons. Therefore, the role of three external actors related to North Korea, namely the U.S., the ROK and China, would be more significant in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. As the U.S. and the ROK are the major targets of North Korea’s possible nuclear attack, these two countries are the most affected and engaged states. North Korea has constantly claimed that it can strike the ROK and the U.S. homeland with its nuclear missiles whenever necessary.[13] However, the ROK’s strategic options toward North Korea appear to be limited to the bilateral deal with North Korea or the military dependence on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.[14] For Washington, North Korea’s nuclear weapons related technology is much serious security threat as it is possible, or probable, that Pyongyang could export its nuclear weapons related technology to other U.S. opponents, such as Iran, Syria or global terrorist organizations.[15] In spite of the ROK and the U.S.’s attempts, mainly focused on economic aid, Seoul and Washington have constantly failed to lead the North to give up its nuclear ambitions.[16] It is due to the fact that the regime in Pyongyang will not, or cannot, abandon its nuclear ambitions because they have come to believe that the more nuclear capability they gain means the more economic aid they can get.[17] Therefore, the ROK and the U.S. are the principal states that must be active on the North Korean nuclear issue, but they have limited political choices in regard to the issue. On the other hand, China can play an active role in resolving this international security challenge as it has been the only country that the North Korea has economically depended on, thus can induce North Korea. It was reported that the total trade volume between China and North Korea from 2007 to 2012 was tripled, which is mainly by the increased North Korea’s essential resources exports.[18] Although China is not a target of North Korea’s nuclear attack, the North Korean nuclear issue is also a trouble to China. Beijing is concerned about regional instability, which can threaten its continuing economic development and political stability.[19] Furthermore, in military aspects, North Korea’s contribution to China as a buffer state against the US.-ROK alliance is very important to China.[20] Above all, China has constantly played a leading role in leading North Korea to participate in the negotiation table, namely the six-party talks, and therefore it can be an influential contributor in solving the North Korean issue.[21]

In conclusion, multilateral efforts especially from the actors with joint strategic and security interests – the ROK, the U.S., China and additionally Japan and Russia – seem necessary. In this regard, commercial liberalism can be a guide of the solution. From a commercial liberal perspective, extensive economic interdependence can reduce a possibility of war.[22] Instead of the existential unilateral economic aid or short-term trade policies, more active economic engagement policy led by multilateral efforts, primarily led by China, can be the most realistic, peaceful and safe solution to the North Korean nuclear issue.[23] Starting from the market transformation, multilateral level of establishing joint enterprises, creating free economic zones, and supporting North Korea to develop small and medium businesses would increase North Korea’s economic stability and strengthen economic ties among regional states in Northeast Asia.[24] At the same time, securing the North’s regime survival and strengthening political and military cooperation are also important to enhance bilateral credibility between North and South Korea, and between North Korea and the United States, as it can ultimately lead North Korea to an arbitrary elimination of the nuclear desire.[25]


[1] Kim Duyeon, “Fact Sheet: North Korea’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs,” The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, July, 2013. http://armscontrolcenter.org/publications/factsheets/fact_sheet_north_korea_nuclear_and_missile_programs/.

[2] Joel S. Wit and Jenny Town, “7 Reasons to Worry About North Korea’s Weapons,” The Atlantic, Apr 16, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/7-reasons-to-worry-about-north-koreas-weapons/275020/.

[3] Joel S. Wit and Jenny Town, “7 Reasons to Worry About North Korea’s Weapons,” The Atlantic, Apr 16, 2013,

[4] Choi Jinwook, “A Game Changer: North Korea’s third nuclear test and Northeast Asian Security.” The Journal of East Asian Affairs 27(2013).

[5] Ibid., 121.

[6] Ibid., 119.

[7] Ibid., 110.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cho Yongwon, “Method to the madness of Chairman Kim: The instrumental rationality of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” International journal 69(2014): 21.

[10] Ibid., 21-22.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] Vasily V. Mikheev, “The North Korean Nuclear issue and the North East Asia situation: Retrospect and prospect,” The Journal of East Asian Affairs 27(2013): 82.

[13] Kwon Edward, “The U.S.-ROK Alliance in Coping with North Korea’s Nuclear Threat,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 26(2014): 490.

[14] Ibid., 492.

[15] Ibid., 494.

[16] Vasily V. Mikheev, “The North Korean Nuclear issue and the North East Asia situation: Retrospect and prospect,” The Journal of East Asian Affairs 27(2013): 82.

[17] Ibid., 82.

[18] Jinwook, “A Game Changer: North Korea’s third nuclear test and Northeast Asian Security,” 116.

[19] Lee Hochul, “China in the North Korean Nuclear Crises: ‘interest’ and ‘identity’ in foreign behavior,” Journal of Contemporary China 22(2013): 324.

[20] Edward, “The U.S.-ROK Alliance in Coping with North Korea’s Nuclear Threat,” 497.

[21] Jinwook, “A Game Changer: North Korea’s third nuclear test and Northeast Asian Security,” 116-118.

[22] James Richardson, “Liberalism,” in An introduction to International relations, ed. by Richard Devetak et al. (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 57.

[23] Mikheev, “The North Korean Nuclear issue and the North East Asia situation: Retrospect and prospect,” 91.

[24] Ibid., 93.

[25] Ibid., 94.

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